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Human Rights

2020: 10 Religious Problems That The Vietnamese Government Doesn’t Want You To Know About

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Photo courtesy: Luat Khoa Magazine.

Vietnam makes no progress with freedom of religion, which remains tightly controlled. 

Vietnam is among countries with the greatest diversity of religions, but it is also among those that suppress freedom of religion most heavily.

In 2020, ethnic Thuong in the Central Highlands, Hoa Hao Buddhists, independent Cao Dai practitioners, and followers of new religions in the northwest all had to pay the price for exercising their freedom of religion.  


1. No place for new religions

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Muong Nhe District police in Dien Bien Province urge residents not to follow new religions. Photo: Dienbientv.vn.

Vietnam possesses a great diversity of religions, but the government is quite strict with new ones.

Recently, a woman introduced me to Phap Mon Dieu Am. She advised me to eat vegetarian and call a phone number to receive “messages that will be imprinted on your heart”. 

Phap Mon Dieu Am is a new religion, and the Vietnamese government prohibits spreading it. 

Authorities worry that new religions will destabilize security and spur anti-government activities. All new religions are referred to generally as “heresies.” 

In the northwest region, especially Dien Bien Province, two new religions have sprouted, known as the Gie Sua and the Ba Co Do religions. 

The province has initiated criminal proceedings against three people for “acting to overthrow the people’s administration” and “harboring criminals” in relation to the Gie Sua religion. 

Dien Bien police also acknowledged that it has pressured residents to sign forms giving up their new religions.

“We went from house to house, explaining things to the residents and asking them to sign pledges giving up the Gie Sua religion, to not believe in the propaganda about establishing “the Mong Kingdom,” Major Vu Van Hanh told the Dien Bien Phu Paper in February 2020.

“As of today, the Na Co Sa border defense post has gotten 55 households/325 individuals to sign pledges giving up their heresies”, he said. 

Despite the government’s threats, other new religions continue to silently operate across the country. 

The Government Committee For Religious Affairs stated in 2015 that there were approximately 60 instances of new religions in Vietnam. 

And yet, throughout Vietnam, people could sometimes unexpectedly hear information about these strange, new religions like Phap Mon Dieu Am, Thanh Hai Vo Thuong Su, Gie Sua, Ba Co Do, Hoang Thien Long, Phap Mon Di Lac, Buu Toa Tam Giao, or Hoi Thanh Duc Chua Troi Me…

2. Ethnic Thuong living under strict religious policies

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Two of the three ethnic Ba-Na individuals arrested on March 19, 2020 for practicing the Ha Mon religion. Photo: Tran Hieu. 

Since 1975, the Thuong ethnic group has been beleaguered as they have never been in their history.

After the government forced them to give up their traditional faiths, many converted to Catholicism and Protestantism. However, the Thuong have not been able to escape government harassment and are not allowed to freely organize their religious activities. 

Peaceful civil activities such as gatherings and protests are all seen as linked to heresies. 

Dega Protestantism, Ha Mon, and the Protestant Church of Christ are all seen as heresies that mislead the masses.

In March 2020, three Ba Na followers of the Ha Mon religion that had absconded into the jungle for seven years were arrested on suspicion of spreading anti-state propaganda.  In June, rather than being charged, the three underwent criticism sessions before the people.

In July, another ethnic Thuong underwent a public criticism session for illegally crossing the border to Cambodia many times, propagating “heresy”, and distorting state policies.

Thuong refugees in Thailand have stated that members of their ethnic group from the Central Highlands escape across the Vietnamese border every month. Currently, there are a little over 500 Thuong refugees in Thailand.

3. Interfering in the internal affairs of religious organizations

The arms of the state reach deep into the internal affairs of religions.

In June 2020, the Government Committee For Religious Affairs ordered the Tien Thien Cao Dai Temple to “create regulations for active dignitaries and functionaries, as well as regulations to resolve letters of petition and grievance, and the selection of dignitaries to be applied to its followers”. These regulations should be the internal matters that the religious organizations voluntarily manage, but the government is directing them to comply with specific instructions.

In Phu Yen Province, local authorities and the Tay Ninh Holy See Cao Dai Great Temple, Vietnam’s largest Cao Dai organization, tried to take over the independent Phu Lam Cao Dai temple in June 2020.

In a conference marking 25 years of state management of the Cao Dai religion, “the church of churches,” i.e. the Government Committee For Religious Affairs, stated that it will increase its research to study more closely the Cao Dai religion and to manage this religion, preventing it from further splintering and having internal conflicts between the religion’s own organizations. 

In June 2020, the Diocese of Vinh decided to retire Dang Huu Nam, a clergyman well-known for his civil society activities.  After the decision, the People’s Daily and many anonymous pro-government web pages stated that the removal was well-deserved because of Nam’s anti-government activities.

4. Arresting Falun Gong practitioners

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The two women arrested by Ha Tinh Province police at the beginning of April 2020 for illegally spreading Falun Gong. Photo: Kiem Sat Newspaper.

As of October 2020, at least 66 Falun Gong practitioners have been arrested and punished administratively for storing or distributing flyers regarding the religion. You may yourself see in public spaces a number of people practicing Falun Gong, numbers which are growing by the day in Vietnam.

However, distributing flyers or practicing Falun Gong with others at home are considered violations of the law.  In Quang Tri, a high school principle was harshly disciplined for inviting a large number of people to his home to practice Falun Gong.

In July 2020, police arrested 28 people for attending a lecture on Falun Gong at a residence in Ha Tinh Province.

Local authorities state that spreading Falun Gong violates the law because the religion has yet to be recognized by the state.

But Falun Gong practitioners disagree with this.

“Our connections are very loose,” a Falun Gong practitioner stated in an interview with Luat Khoa. “We don’t organize into associations or anything like Catholicism or Buddhism.”

LIV, the organization that manages Luat Khoa magazine, has archived information regarding Falun Gong practitioners that have been arrested. This list is a part of a database on freedom of religion in Vietnam, which can be found at: https://www.liv.ngo/data/

Readers can also check out a number of other Luat Khoa articles to find out more about the Falun Gong: Is practicing Falun Gong legal?…, and our Religion Bulletins from MayJune, and September.

5. Controlling publishing

Arrested Falun Gong practitioners have been administratively punished based on a decree regarding publishing. Specifically, they were punished for distributing flyers without government approval.

Publication policies are particularly strict when it comes to religion or politics.

In 2012, the government stipulated that the borrowing or gifting of publications between citizens requires government permission.

The Government Committee For Religious Affairs manages the Religion Publishing House and is the department in charge of censorship for religious publications. 

Control of publishing certainly exercises a heavy influence on the development of religions, and it is impossible to avoid the idea that the government censors with a heavy hand to purposefully limit this development.

6. Punishing individuals

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Venerable Thich Quang Do.  Photo: AFP.

In February 2020, Vietnam’s longest imprisoned monk Venerable Thich Quang Do passed away. 

Before 1975, Venerable Quang Do actively mobilized for the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. After 1975, he continued to lead this delegation, despite fierce government suppression that continued until his death.

Many other religious dignitaries remain subject to the government’s control and punishment.  

In January 2020, the head of Song Ngoc Parish Father Nguyen Dinh Thuc stated that he was banned from holding mass beginning in August 2019. Father Thuc is widely known by the public for his civil society activities among central Vietnamese fishermen after the Formosa environmental disaster. Between 2017 and 2019, the government banned him from traveling overseas twice.  

In February 2020, a Khmer monk named Seun Ty had his passport confiscated for two weeks, with the government threatening that he had violated Vietnam’s Cybersecurity Law. In May 2020, authorities refused to issue a passport to Nguyen Van Toan, a clergyman that often publicly criticized the government. 

After issuing complaints about discriminatory treatment, including instances of torture, families of a number of imprisoned religious activists stated that they had lost touch with their loved ones behind bars.

The government disapproves of religious activists linking with diplomatic missions of their own accord. 

The authorities ordered four religious activists in the Central Highlands, Pastors Nguyen Ngoc Khanh, Y Kuan E Ban, Y Quy Bdap, and Y Khen Bdap to come in for questioning after they met with an American delegation regarding religious freedom. 

7. Obstructing freedom of association

In 2020, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist Church continued to operate without legal recognition. As in previous years, members of the group were prevented by police from conducting ceremonies at their headquarters in March and July.

A number of members of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam stated that the government interfered in the February 2020 funeral of Venerable Thich Quang Do, stripping them of the right to manage the event. The attempted seizure of the Phu Lam Cao Dai Temple also demonstrates that the government does not accept the idea of practitioners there operating independently.

8. Seizing property and possessions

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St. Joseph School, which is part of the Da Minh Tam Hiep Parish, is currently a medical facility within the Dong Nai General Hospital. Photo: The Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine Siena Tam Hiep.

The government has moved from seizing religious properties after 1975 to now “re-appropriating” them.

In 2020, Thi Nghe Parish in Ho Chi Minh City and the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine Siena Tam Hiep in Dong Nai Province stated that the usage rights for two schools that the government previously borrowed were quietly transferred to state entities.

Policies from 2003 related to land and properties of religious organizations  helped local authorities gain usage rights over religious properties  that they were “borrowing.”

Currently, religious organizations do not have the legal grounds to demand their properties back if the government refuses to return them. 

Religious organizations that possess large pieces of land can also become targets of harassment. 

In Thua Thien – Hue Province, Thien An Abbey and provincial authorities are in conflict over the abbey’s land and property. The abbey’s 107 hectares of land has been continually chipped away by the government since 1975, without notification nor compensation. 

In June 2020, Thien An Abbey’s forests were attacked by individuals who cut down trees and sawed deeply into the roots of many conifers.

On August 13, 2020, an area household mobilized a group of men to hammer down stakes and put up barbed wire on a part of Thien An Abbey’s land.

Another problem is that religious organizations are not allowed to sell or purchase land and must wait on the government to provide it.

In Ninh Binh Province, members of the Dong Dinh Parish were extremely upset when local authorities refused to give their land to their church. After the parishioners had donated the land to the government to pass to the church in accordance with the law, commune cadres announced that they would not turn the land over to the church but instead, would build a flood-prevention dyke between the current church land and the land parishioners had given to the government.

9. Religious organizations hit with reprisals

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Letters police sent to members of Phu Lam Temple inviting them in for questioning. Photo: Cao Dai Orthodox Preservation.

In August 2020, a crowd that included residents and commune cadres protested for two days on land disputed by Thien An Abbey, local households, and the government.  The crowd hung up banners and used loudspeakers to decry the monks “taking their land.” 

In Phu Yen Province, after supporting the unsuccessful takeover of Phu Lam Temple, provincial authorities invited five members of the temple in for questioning. Authorities threatened these members, telling them that they had to accept the government’s takeover order.

In 2020, Central Highland provincial authorities accused the Protestant Church of Christ of using religious activities to incite people to oppose the government. Many members of this church were taken in for interrogation. 

10. Controlling the press

The Vietnamese government maintains a monopoly over all official media. With regard to religious issues, Vietnam’s journalists present information according to government instruction. In February 2020, Tuoi Tre Newspaper had to remove an article about Venerable Thich Quang Do’s career.

In June 2020, many publications simultaneously posted articles rejecting accusations in a 2019 international report regarding religion issued by the United States. In August 2020, the monks of Thien An Abbey issued a rebuttal to a report by Thua Thien – Hue Radio and Television, stating that it was untruthful and smeared the monks. 

In recent years, all official newspapers in Vietnam have criticized the Falun Gong movement and its ‘impropriety.” These publications have only conveyed government views rather than the views of its adherents.

Two Catholic webpages, Good News To The Poor and VietCatholic, remain blocked in Vietnam, as are many press organizations that speak up for religious freedom, such as VOA, RFA, BBC, RFI, and Luat Khoa Magazine.

There are no private television or radio stations that operate freely in Vietnam.

Human Rights

When Calls To Free Pham Doan Trang Are Not Enough

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Pham Doan Trang. Graphics: Luat Khoa Magazine.

This op-ed article was written in Vietnamese by Trinh Huu Long and was previously published in the Luat Khoa Magazine on October 10, 2020. 


Every time an activist is arrested, several campaigns for his or her release emerge in response to the government’s persecution of human rights. This method is the oldest, most common, and most familiar form the common citizenry uses to call for justice.

I have been a part of those movements and have even organized several campaigns many times in the past nine years. 

Yet, despite everything, I constantly ask myself if these calls to action actually do any good? “How long am I going to do this,” I ask myself, “and are there any benefits to this or not?” These are just some of the questions that constantly linger in the back of my mind.

Most likely, those arrested will remain in prison; their sentence will be upheld. In fact, the length of the individual’s  imprisonment might even be made longer. Despite all our work, more and more people are still being incarcerated. There has been no change in our laws or institutions, despite all our efforts at home and abroad.

And even if we’re blessed with the smallest amount of luck, those arrested are granted asylum in another country, defeating the primary purpose of our campaigns.

Pham Doan Trang, imprisoned activist, blogger, journalist, and co-founder of The Vietnamese and Luat Khoa online magazines has put some of my concerns to rest.

“I do not need my own freedom; I need something much more significant than that: freedom and democracy for the whole of Vietnam,” she wrote in a letter on May 27, 2019, her 41st birthday, and while she was on the run from the police. “This goal sounds grandiose and far-fetched, but reaching it is actually possible with everyone’s help.”

Doan Trang wanted this letter to be released to the public only when she was indeed convicted and not when she was merely detained. Eventually, she was arrested and now faces a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. 

If Doan Trang merely wanted freedom for herself, she had at least two opportunities to attain this in the past. 

The first was after her nine-day criminal detention in 2009. If she was obedient and ceased all her activities regarding sensitive topics and cut all her ties with social elements deemed “anti-state,” she would have continued to live a safe and full life. 

The second was when she studied in the United States and could have chosen a path towards residency or citizenship. In fact, at least three agencies and organizations wanted to sponsor her permanent stay in America.

So, why did Doan Trang choose to return to her homeland? It is because she understands that her freedom means nothing compared to the whole of Vietnam. Vietnam needs people to step up and work for the freedom of everyone. 

Such a concept is simple and easy to understand, yet making it a reality is challenging to attain.

Doan Trang could have chosen to contribute to Vietnam’s fight from the outside as many others, including myself, are doing. Yet, she chose the most complex, most painful, and most difficult way to contribute to the cause. She returned home and faced the problem head-on. She published various works, wrote books, and even taught about democracy and freedom right in front of the police.

Doan Trang often told me that the best way to fight is to be an example, to be an inspiration for others to do the same. Only then can we, as a society, start to see what democracy, human rights, and the rule of law look like in reality. Words without actions are meaningless.

Sadly, I do not know how successful Doan Trang’s efforts have been, nor how many lives have been touched by her words and deeds. But regarding her arrest in October 2020, I would like to say this.

Activists have a saying called “sharing fire,” which means sharing the tasks and responsibilities of dangerous activities with many people to reduce individual risk. Sometimes we coordinate with each other, but more often than not this is not the case; people passively participate in this phenomenon without discussing plans in advance.

What if the deeds Doan Trang had done in the past five years were divided among five or 10 people, would she still have been arrested? More recently, if she had not produced the two Dong Tam reports, would she be in jail right now? 

She often told me that these things are not difficult to accomplish and that there are many people who share similar ideas with her. If so, why are there so few people standing up for what is right? Granted, some people do, and Doan Trang was one of them. Yet because of inaction, apathy, or fear, she and the handful of brave, noble souls like her shoulder the entire risk.  

Many of them will go to jail, while those who are content to watch from the sidelines will get angry again. They will once again clamor for the release and freedom of those imprisoned. But in the end, nothing gets done. Rinse and repeat.

Will we Vietnamese forever play the same old games with the government? Will we continue to sheepishly and ineffectively demand the release of our friends? Then, when nothing gets done, will we once again forget and return to the tolerated normalcy of life in this great prison that the government has made?

Things will be different if more people actively do their part to create social change, just like Doan Trang. Doing so has two advantages.

The first is to “share the fire” with those still fighting to reduce their risk and limit their chance of getting captured. Government resources are limited, and they can only invest in monitoring and controlling a few people. 

Those outside Vietnam can do their part as well. For instance, to write something similar to the Dong Tam Report, we just need to collect data on the internet and conduct interviews online or through the phone. It is not necessary to live in Vietnam physically to accomplish these tasks.

The second is to normalize press freedom, independent publishing, and political activities considered “sensitive.”

When these activities become commonplace, the government will be forced to accept them. This was observed in the past when private businesses were considered illegal. Nonetheless, they continued to operate, and gradually the government had to admit that these establishments were a fundamental component of the country’s economy. Since 1986, the state no longer considers owning a private business a criminal offense. 

For me, the best way to help Doan Trang and people like her is to play a more active role. Eventually, everyone will benefit when the political space expands. No one will ever be arrested or imprisoned again for writing or publishing books. I will no longer have to clamor for one person’s freedom every single time someone gets arrested. I will finally be able to rest. 

Calls for Freedom are good, but they are often not enough. We should release ourselves from the shackles of fear, apathy, and apprehension to actively fight for progress and change.

Doan Trang has completed her mission and the responsibility now falls on our shoulders. Even if she were to be released tomorrow, even if she chooses to stay in Vietnam or decided to leave, the fight continues in each one of us.

And if you love Doan Trang, I implore you to do what she would have done.

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Religion

The Collision Of Religion And The Vietnamese State

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Graphics: Legal Initiatives for Vietnam

The Separation of Church and State is a concept that has been accepted and promulgated by several democratic countries in the modern era. While the seeds of this idea were planted during the late Middle Ages and the Reformation, it was only during the early years of the establishment of the United States of America that this idea started to blossom. 

While this concept is often construed to simply mean that religion should not intertwine with politics, the more comprehensive meaning is as follows: “it is the right to practice any faith, or to have no faith [at all].” As such, the state has no right to interject, interfere, or hinder an individual’s practice of his or her beliefs; ideally, no laws or statutes will be passed that will limit a person’s free exercise of his or her faith.

The Vietnamese Communist Party, however, has chosen to take a radically different approach towards religion. 

Legal Initiatives For Vietnam (LIV) released its legal research in September 2020, penned by Vo Quoc Hung Thinh, in which the author presented the many difficulties, challenges, and hurdles that religious organizations face when they deal with the Vietnamese state. 

The writer also highlights the existing institutionalized discrimination against religions in Vietnam and gives us a glimpse into how the state’s direct interference affects believers as well. 

Faith and Law

Several documents and resolutions have been passed by the VCP that perfectly illustrate its stance towards religious organizations. 

Vo Quoc Hung Thinh noted in his research that in its Resolution 297/CP Concerning Policy on Religion (1976), the Vietnamese government, at least on paper, claimed to acknowledge the right of freedom of religion and supposedly guaranteed equality under the law.  

However, it also emphasized, “that religions shall not be ‘exploited’ to bring harm to the Socialist State.” This resolution then states that the faithful “shall be educated to ensure the spirit of socialist patriotism” and that “ ‘[r]eactionary’ elements hiding inside religions shall be eradicated.”

This resolution seems to assume that religious organizations are going to be used to subvert state authority. And while it is possible for this to happen, this is not something specific for religion itself; any coalition or gathering of people can fulfill this role just as well or even better than a Sunday Bible Study group; to focus on religion is discriminatory and goes against the concept of equality under the law.

Vo Quoc Hung Thinh also noted in his legal research that Resolution 40 –NQ/TW, which focused on religion management in the new situation (October 1, 1981), mentioned several religions that existed in the former Republic of Vietnam (1955-1975) and discussed the “state of socialist enlightenment” among practitioners who belonged to them. 

For instance, regarding the Catholic Church that existed in the former Republic of Vietnam, the current Vietnamese government believed that the followers of this religion were “vulnerable to anti-communist propaganda.” 

Another example would be that of the Unified Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam (UBSV). The resolution stated that the leaders of this religion were already somewhat “re-educated” but that the party needed “to abolish UBSV and unify Buddhism in Vietnam under the supervision of the Communist Party.”

While this resolution document is quite outdated and old, through it, we can catch a glimpse of how the VCP deals with religious groups. 

The Communist Party monitors both followers and spiritual leaders in Vietnam, gathers data about them, and directly interferes in the teachings and belief systems of religion. This runs contrary to the right of freedom of religion and the separation of church and state.

Vo also noted that Resolution 25 – NQ/TW, which focused on the National Central Committee on Religion Management (2003), was drafted after the Doi Moi era when Vietnam wanted to join the World Trade Organization. 

This resolution, therefore, removed most of the aggressive language used in prior legislation but kept several “core principles” intact. This particular document stated that “any religion must be recognized by the State and religious activities shall be subject to [the] State’s regulations and supervision.” It also maintained that there were still “reactionary elements” hiding in various religious groups and that the government shall prepare to defeat any of them. 

All three of these resolutions illustrate, that despite the passage of time, not much has changed in the way the VCP thinks about religious organizations. They are still seen as threats to the Party’s power, and as such, have to be destroyed or controlled. And despite what the VCP might claim, the Party does not respect freedom of belief nor provide these groups equal protection under the law. 

Faith and Red Tape

For religions to be formally recognized in Vietnam, and for them to also have some semblance of protection against state forces, they have to register and be approved by the government. 

Human Rights Watch reported in October 2020 that failure to do so can lead to the arrest, imprisonment, interrogation, and torture of the leaders or followers of these religions. Hence, for the sake of self-preservation, it is in their best interest to comply.

However, this process is far from convenient. 

In order to be recognized, religious groups in Vietnam first need to obtain a Certificate of Religion Operation. Five years later, they then need to formally apply for official recognition. Only upon completion of these two requirements are they, at least on paper, afforded all the rights, benefits, and protections that they should have been given 10 years earlier. 

This process, which is explained in detail in Vietnam’s Law on Religions and Beliefs 02/2016/QH14 (LBB), passed on November 18, 2016, is also vulnerable to abuse by the Vietnamese authorities. 

LIV’s research paper also highlights the case of the religious group An Dan Dai Dao (ADDD), which was established in 1969. It is a sect of Buddhism which had a network of 14 temples and thousands of followers before 1975. After Saigon fell on April 30, 1975, the new ruling Vietnamese Communist Party accused ADDD of working with the Central Intelligence Agency. 

ADDD was also not granted registration, which led to its properties being taken away by the government; their followers were also forced into hiding. 

In 2003, adherents tried to jumpstart their religion once more due to the perceived reforms going on in Vietnam. However, they were once again persecuted by the state. 

Phan Van Thu of ADDD. Picture: The 88 Project.

In 2013, Phan Van Thu, the leader of ADDD, was sentenced to life imprisonment while 21 other leaders were sentenced to a collective total of 299 years in prison and 105 years of house arrest. To this day, the ADDD situation holds the record of having the highest sentence ever imposed in a political-religious case in Vietnam.

Those incarcerated are currently dealing with abuse and maltreatment, and are faced with the very real possibility of death.

In denying the ADDD sect the right to register, the Vietnamese state branded the group as criminals and treated them as such despite ADDD’s lack of involvement in any political activities. 

The followers of this religion have faced persecution for more than 40 years for simply practicing their faith and holding firm to a belief they deem essential to their human existence. This situation casts a bright light on the black bleeding heart of the VCP and exposes the lengths the government is willing to go to destroy its own people. 

Faith and Freedom

Even state-approved religious organizations have to constantly deal with the ever-watchful eye of the VCP. 

LIV research also states that these organizations are required to get the state’s permission and approval for various things such as hosting religious events whether inside or outside their designated place of worship or for something as simple as a change in leadership within their organizations. 

The locations where religious structures can be built also require the state’s consent. In effect, rather than portraying strength, the VCP presents itself as being unhealthily obsessed with religious groups, their leaders, and the many people who are part of them. 

This is not at all surprising; as Marx, the father of the hammer and sickle, once stated “religion is the opium of the people.” 

In Communism, religion is seen as something undesirable, as something taboo, and as something that must be purged. We’ve seen this in the history of many Eastern and Central European countries when they were under the rule of the former Soviet Union.

Vietnam is going through the same motions. Yet, we’ve also seen that after the fall of the USSR, religion never truly went away. 

In religion, people find hope; people find something greater than themselves that they aspire to attain, whether it may be the afterlife, heaven, nirvana, or enlightenment. In faith, they find purpose; they find direction and guidance to help them navigate the tumultuous sea of life with the company of those who choose to travel the same path. 

In belief, they find freedom.

And this is what the VCP fears the most: that the people will no longer be dependent on them for subsistence and survival. They fear for a time when their countrymen start to dream or come to know of a world outside the Party’s tiny dictatorship. They fear a populace that holds another being in higher regard than the crumbling corpse of Ho Chi Minh. 

The VCP fears becoming obsolete. Yet in the end, that is exactly what it fated to be.

Long after Vietnam has risen above the shackles of authoritarianism and long after it has reached a future of true and genuine democracy, the Party will be gone. 

But religion will be there to stay.

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Human Rights

A Prisoner’s Dilemma: The State Of Human Rights Defenders In Vietnam

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Photo: The 88 Project.

Since the United Nations released the first World Report on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders in 2018, the many human rights violations committed by the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) have slowly come under international scrutiny. 

Many of the same issues presented in the report mentioned above, such as the VCP’s active restriction of the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association, or a fair trial with due process, continue to persist three years down the line. Even though fewer Vietnamese citizens were convicted in 2020 than in 2019, more were persecuted through other means for simply exercising their supposedly protected rights. 

The 88 Project’s 2020 Human Rights Report on Vietnam explores, details, and highlights the many struggles that Vietnamese activists faced that year. And much to everyone’s expectations and disappointment, Vietnam continues to fail in its international obligations to protect the right of free speech and the well-being of its human rights defenders.

People at Risk

Sharing similarities with the data presented by the Human Rights Measurement Initiative, the report states that, “[o]f the 35 people arrested in 2020, nine were women…. The top areas of activism of those arrested in 2020 were democracy activists (16), land rights (11), human rights (9), and freedom of expression (8) [and] [t]he most common occupations of those arrested in 2020 were farmers (8), journalists (4), and teachers (3).”

Of those arrested, eight were denied legal representation for the charges filed against them, four were not allowed to be visited by friends or family, six were part of small religious sects, and nine came from ethnic minority groups.

Several high-profile activists were also jailed, such as Pham Doan Trang, a writer and co-founder of the Luat Khoa and The Vietnamese online magazines, and Pham Chi Dung, president of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam (IJAVN). 

Eleven online commentators were also taken into custody in 2020, and their number makes up roughly 31 percent of all arrests made that year. The most shocking thing is that these people were brought to jail even though they were not members of any specific civil society group; they were arrested for the sole reason that they chose to air  their grievances against the Vietnamese government.

In summation, it is clear that no one is safe from the VCP. It hardly matters to them if you are an activist fighting tooth and nail for your principles and beliefs or an average citizen trying to be as discreet as possible. If you publicly express any discontent or disapproval with the government’s actions you run the genuine risk of being put under the spotlight and you will not be safe from the Communist Party’s malicious retribution. 

The Injustice of the Law

The charges facing those arrested are based on specific provisions in the 2015 Vietnamese Penal Code. 

To be specific:

  1. Article 118: disrupting security
  2. Article 331: abusing democratic freedoms 
  3. Article 117: conducting propaganda against the state 
  4. Article 330: resisting officers in the performance of their official duties

These statutes, according to Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, involve national security in Vietnam laws which “are vaguely defined and often used arbitrarily to punish critics, activists, and bloggers.”

He adds, “it’s even more outrageous to lock up someone for five years just because the government arbitrarily decides that they are preparing to criticize the government.”

Yet, this is far from the only maltreatment faced by those arrested.

Several detained individuals have also been denied access to legal representation, meaning that they were sent directly to trial without consulting with a lawyer. And even if they were allowed to meet an attorney, the lawyers were often not given all of the relevant material they might have needed to help defend their client in court.

Additionally, the appeals of political prisoners for reduced sentences or a retrial are often ignored by the judiciary or are not granted. In 2020, only two who appealed their case, Dang Thi Hue and Bui Manh Tien, successfully had their pleas heard. Yet, the sentences of each one were only reduced by three months. 

It is apparent that the Vietnamese legal system is skewed against human rights defenders and activists. They are not afforded the legal remedies that they are entitled to by law, and they are also not given proper and impartial trials or allowed to use arbitration to plead their cases. 

The Vietnamese government actively refuses to abide by the due process standards that it has codified into law. In any other democratic country, this kind of behavior would not be acceptable. But in a one-party state run by strongmen, this is sadly the norm. 

Life Behind Bars

For those already incarcerated, their situation is far from ideal. According to The 88 Project’s report, political prisoners are often “forced into severe physical and psychological conditions” such as the “denial of family communications, denial of adequate healthcare, forced mental health treatment, solitary confinement, and punitive prison transfers.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic has only served as further justification for the Vietnamese government to deny people proper and humane treatment. 

The report also details the situations of several imprisoned activists in 2020, such as Hoang Duc Binh, Chau Van Kham, and Nguyen Van Tuc, who are not only barred from meeting or even speaking with their family but are also denied medical care for their severe and underlying health conditions. 

Le Anh Hung and Pham Chi Thanh are the names of other political prisoners made to undergo mental health treatments despite being perfectly sane and normal; they, and others like them,  are forced to take anti-psychotic medication and are made to undergo ethically questionable psychiatric therapies which border on torture. 

The appalling conditions that political prisoners face in Vietnam are vicious, nasty, and inhumane. They are treated even worse than livestock; they are seen as pariahs, not deserving of even the slightest modicum of respect. 

The prison situation reflects what the VCP thinks about the citizens of the country. The moment you become inconvenient, detrimental, or even a minor nuisance to their unchecked power and greed, they will not hesitate to use force, torture, or even to threaten you with the possibility of death to crush your body and spirit. 

***

The tactics used by the Vietnamese government and its state agents against activists and human rights defenders are nothing new; these actions are what they’ve been doing for decades now.

However, due to the ongoing global pandemic, the VCP feels emboldened to further step on the necks of the people it thinks are a danger to its position in society. The Party is willing to toss away the humanity and decency of its citizens just to sate their never-ending lust for riches and power. 

The authorities use force and fear in tandem to scare the populace into silence and compliance. 

Yet, as imposing and threatening the VCP wants itself to appear, it has failed to acknowledge one simple fact: these acts of oppression against Vietnamese citizens betray the Party’s fear and paranoia.

In reality, the authorities are the ones who are scared. They live in fear that one day, the people may grow wise to the truth: that real power lies not in the state or its corrupt institutions but within the farmer, the student, the teacher, the journalist, and the worker. It is found in the breasts of mothers, fathers, and their children, and in the hearts of all those who desire a better future for themselves and those they love. 

The Vietnamese government continues to act with impunity, not because of its abundance of strength but because of its lack of strength. 

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